The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has exonerated Tesla’s Autopilot system as the cause of a fatal and fiery Texas crash involving a Tesla Model S in 2021. Investigators for the NTSB issued their final report this week that determined the driver was operating the vehicle up until it impacted the tree and that they had been under the influence of alcohol and drugs (via Ars Technica).
Here’s the probable cause as written in the NTSB’s final conclusion:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the Spring, Texas, electric vehicle crash was the driver’s excessive speed and failure to control his car, due to impairment from alcohol intoxication in combination with the effects of two sedating antihistamines, resulting in a roadway departure, tree impact, and postcrash fire.
The crash, which happened on April 17th, 2021, in Spring, Texas, made headlines due to investigators at the scene determining that the driver’s seat was unoccupied. The two men who died in the fiery crash were unbuckled. One of them was in the front passenger seat and the other in the backseat. The scene set suspicions that Tesla’s Autopilot advanced driver-assistant software might have been in use, somehow without a driver present.
On an earnings call later that month, Tesla VP of vehicle engineering Lars Moravy said company representatives who inspected the crash determined the steering wheel was “deformed.” The steering wheel’s condition pointed to there being an occupant in the driver’s seat when the Model S impacted the tree, a finding that contradicted the accounts of local authorities.
Now, NTSB investigators are certain there was an occupant in the driver’s seat up until the crash and that Autopilot was not in use. Their findings included security footage showing the two men entering the 2019 Tesla Model S P100D and sitting in the front seats of the vehicle before leaving. Additionally, data retrieved by Tesla showed that the seat belts were buckled up until the crash and that the driver moved to the rear seat afterward.
The Model S had more information stored in its event data recorder, which was used in the NTSB report. Five seconds before impacting the tree, the Model S had accelerated from 39 to 67mph in two seconds and traveled 57mph before a full stop. It also determined that seat belts had their pretensions activated, and the airbags were deployed. As for the fire, it started due to damage to the front of the battery module.
The NTSB’s conclusion states that the driver’s speed and impairment from alcohol plus two sedating antihistamines resulted in a roadway departure, tree impact, and post-crash fire. As for Autopilot, the NTSB determined it wasn’t in use because the system, in testing, is programmed to not go faster than 30mph on the street the Tesla last traveled.
While there are ways to trick Autopilot into activating without someone in the driver’s seat, it seems that wasn’t the case in this crash. Additionally, the owner of the Tesla did not have the more advanced Full Self-Driving package installed.